Fister trade shows Nationals won't settle
Slotting righty in behind Strasburg, Gio, Zimmermann makes top rotation even better
A team that takes an existing strength and makes it even stronger is a team that won't accept second place as a way of life.
For the purposes of this discussion, the team in question is the Washington Nationals. They bolstered an already impressive starting rotation Monday with the acquisition of Doug Fister in a trade with the Detroit Tigers.
Fister, who will turn 30 in February, was 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA for the Tigers in 2013. He was also more than capable as a postseason performer for Detroit, going 3-2 with a 2.98 ERA in eight appearances, including seven starts, over the last three postseasons.
The Nationals will return a rotation that includes top-tier starters in Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, who had a breakthrough 2013 season. Dan Haren has recently departed via a free-agent signing with the Dodgers, but the Nats also have lefty Ross Detwiler available as a rotation option.
This was an impressive group before the trade, but it is even better now with the addition of Fister. He is a reliable strike-thrower who consistently generates ground balls with his sinker. Fister's ground-ball rate of 54.3 percent was fourth highest in the Majors last season.
Fister made an immediate impression in the 2011 season with Detroit. After arriving in a trade from Seattle, he went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA for the Tigers.
"We feel we've added a talented, young veteran to our starting pitching corps," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Doug is battle-tested through playoff experiences, and the depth he brings to our staff is exceptional. We are thrilled to welcome him aboard."
Fister didn't come at a discount. The Nats gave up Steve Lombardozzi, a useful performer who primarily played second base with Washington, but he also played shortstop, third and left field.
The Nationals also traded left-handed reliever Ian Krol and a legitimate left-handed starting pitching prospect in Robbie Ray.
The deal makes sense for the Tigers on several levels. With Fister arbitration-eligible, it gives them greater payroll flexibility. They also have an impressive rotation with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello returning. With lefty Drew Smyly expected to move from the bullpen to the rotation, Krol, 22, who pitched well in his first Major League season, would take over Smyly's bullpen role.
The best trades are often made when neither club is dealing from a position of weakness. That was certainly the case here with both clubs. The Tigers' trading track record is beyond question. But the striking thing here was the Nats' willingness to give up talent to acquire another front-line starter, an established Major League performer.
Fister is reliable. He's proven. He's pitched big games for a Detroit club that qualified for the postseason in each of the three years he was with the Tigers.
The Nationals had baseball's best regular-season record in 2012, going 98-64. Everything, including the World Series, seemed to be within reach for '13. But the club slipped to 86-76, finishing 10 games behind Atlanta in the National League East, and four games out of a Wild Card berth.
Even so, with the pitching they had on hand at the end of the '13 season, the Nats would have been considered strong contenders in '14.
But they have demonstrated that they are not satisfied with the status quo. With starters the quality of Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann, Fister does not have to come in and be a top-of-the-rotation force. But even considered as a fourth starter, he becomes another point of strength. The search for pitching depth seems to be an endless task for some contemporary franchises. The Nationals are among the organizations that actually find the pitching.
The Tigers addressed some needs here, and they were dealing from a fortunate position of having six projected starters for five spots. The Nats, meanwhile, took a rotation that was already among the very best in the game and then improved on that status. This is the mark of a team that is unwilling to settle for second best.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.